Teachers and students spread climate change education earned in the Adirondacks
By Chloe Bennett
In 2022, the Explorer attended two week-long immersive camps centered around climate change education and solutions. The Wild Center resumed the programs after shutting down during the height of the pandemic.
The Summer Institute for Climate Change Education is designed to equip educators with new classroom tools and the Youth Leadership Retreat is for high school students interested in delving into the subject.
The Explorer caught up with four graduates — two Adirondack students and two teachers. They’re part of the climate movement. They’ve changed the way they teach, learn and interact with the world as they prepare for the future.
Sustainability and activism
Climate work has been a priority for all of Bella Wissler’s life. Her father studied the environment in college, and she plans to do the same as a freshman at Middlebury College.
The Northwood School senior said she left the retreat that summer feeling more empowered to take action in the climate movement. A former member of Northwood’s sustainability club, she said she remained inspired as she geared up for high school graduation.
“It was really cool to get together with a bunch of leaders from different parts of the state who are really passionate about climate action and kind of work together,” Wissler, 17, said.
Last November, Wissler arranged for herself and five students from her school to attend the Wild Center’s Youth Climate Summit, a two-day education climate workshop with hundreds of New York high schools. The participants were from Lake Placid, Saranac Lake, Malone and St. Lucia, an island in the Caribbean. It was the first time in five years that students from the Lake Placid high school attended the summit, she said.
Her climate ambition led her to address students, staff and parents at Northwood School in April at a formal dinner with food from local agribusinesses such as Little Leaf Farms and Black River Produce in Vermont.
In a speech with a classmate, Wissler talked about the history of Earth Day and its significance. “And then we talked about the farms that we got the food from and about why eating locally sourced foods can reduce your carbon footprint and your impact.”
After college, Wissler said she wants to work in environmental science as a field researcher. Although she’s unsure of where post-graduate life will take her, she plans to eventually come back to the Adirondacks.
Wind energy in the classroom
Before her time in Lake Placid, Samantha Poll said she had few resources for teaching her students about climate change. As the only eighth-grade math and science teacher at her middle school in Winterport, Maine, Poll felt that her students deserved more information about climate solutions.
“It’s super complex and I’ve not had any other training on how to do that effectively until I visited the Wild Center,” Poll said.
In 2022, Poll was researching opportunities to get more teacher training when she came across the summer institute online. Although topics adjacent to climate change were part of her curriculum at Samuel L. Wagner Middle School, the science and understanding of it were not explicitly named. Now she’s teaching her students about renewable energy while running an environmental club called The Green Steam Team. Before she went on maternity leave in the spring, Poll challenged her students to build their own wind turbines.
Poll gave out 10-inch towers stuck to a wooden base to her classes along with materials like cardboard and aluminum foil to construct windmill blades. A motor was attached to a multimeter to measure each project’s electrical output. The best design earned bragging rights, she said.
“Just anecdotally, kids are excited when I tie in these real connections to climate change,” Poll said.
Following the Wild Center’s focus on climate solutions has made Poll’s teaching of the broad issue less daunting, she said. Instead of focusing on the intimidating aspects of the climate crisis, Poll is finding avenues for change like calling attention to renewable energy.
“It does feel scary though because you want to make sure you do it in a way that’s going to lead to change and not be overwhelming for them,” she said.
Eco-bricks and a carbon-neutral prom
As a junior at Saranac Lake High School, Jenna Audlin balances her studies with time outdoors and nature writing. After attending the Wild Center’s camp in 2022, she set goals to reestablish her school’s green team and green activities during the school year.
Audlin, 16, said the team collected plastic waste during the spring, intending to build a structure on campus in compressed material. The group wants to use “eco-bricks,” which are plastic bottles packed with non-recyclable materials.
She also helped plan a carbon-neutral prom during the spring semester with the green team.
“We’re having a contest to see who can have the least carbon footprint,” Audlin said before the event. “We’re going to have local food and stuff, but also (be) asking people, ‘Did you thrift your dress or is it a hand-me-down?’ or did you take a car here or did you carpool?’” she said.
The high school’s green team hung flyers encouraging students to buy their prom clothes second-hand or make them at home. One student went home with a $60 gift card to Nonna Fina’s Pizzeria in Saranac Lake after winning a vote as most sustainable. Although some students chose not to participate, Audlin’s classmate and green teammate Sabine Denkenberger said it felt like a success.
“I know everybody knew about it and a lot of people would ask me what it was, and I was able to explain to them what we were doing and how it helped,” Denkenberger said.
Audlin also published a children’s workbook with activity ideas and writing prompts about the Adirondacks in May. The book, “Explore More,” was inspired by her move from Colorado to the park at age 14. (And it’s available through the Explorer’s website)
“I wanted to put this together so that when other kids moved here, it would be a lot easier for them to learn about it,” Audlin said.
Climate solutions and action
Karina Connolly grew up in a family of teachers. Her parents, aunts and uncles are educators, inspiring her to follow in their footsteps.
An elementary school teacher, Connolly is also an undergraduate student at Hobart and William Smith Colleges in Geneva. It was through her college that she heard about the Wild Center’s teacher’s institute. She said she learned several new teaching tools at the institute, like how to get students interested in climate change by serving up entry points about their own interests. Social justice and other widespread issues that intersect with climate change can be openings for learners, she said. But above all, learning to ground lessons in climate solutions was crucial to the young teacher.
“I’m Gen-Z, so I’ve grown up with the doom and gloom narrative,” Connolly, 22, said. “Getting to flip it into a solutions narrative, and then also asking what our students can be doing, asking them, ‘Okay, now you’ve learned about all this. What do you want to do?’”
At the Children’s Hour School, Connolly helps with lessons outside of her subject area of Spanish. When taking the elementary students outside or into town, she engages them in conversation about familiar climate solutions such as renewable energy options like solar panels. In the classroom, the students learn about climate change for several weeks.
“I’ve been very impressed with how quickly they’re able to connect the different pieces of it and ask questions,” she said.
It feels natural for Connolly to teach her students about climate change because of her own experience with the topic in school, although the subject wasn’t explored until her middle and high school years. She hopes instilling the knowledge early will help students figure out ways to hold the government accountable or take individual actions in the future.
“I want there to be a world for them to inherit,” Connolly said. “I want them to be able to live sustainable lives and live good lives and make a positive difference and not have to be worried about the climate crisis.”
Jen Kretser, the Wild Center’s director of climate initiatives, began organizing youth climate programs in 2009 with help from teachers and students in the Tri-Lakes. Kretser said she wanted to make environmental and climate education more accessible to those inside and outside of science fields.
“We want to create this community of people that are not only connected to each other, but connected to the work that they do,” Kretser said.
Trial and error helped Kretser and collaborators shape the youth retreat into the solutions-focused education program it is now. A turning point in developing the curriculum came when students got the chance to plan their own climate goals such as creating green teams or getting involved in local government. They showed great optimism in the otherwise broad and heavy topic in that process.
Focusing on action plans instead of only science and the social impacts of the climate crisis became central to the program. “What we want to do is provide pathways for people to move forward and feel like they’re invited to be part of the climate movement wherever you are,” Kretser said.
As she searches for answers to big questions, Kretser said she wants to grow the Wild Center’s “constellation” of organizations that are part of the center’s climate programs. The team is working on a written guide for students to get involved in their local governments. She said they are also exploring a toolkit for organizations to create climate summits for elementary students.
“We have a million ideas about what we want to do,” Kretser said. “How do we grow and sustain the network and support summit sites around the globe, how do we continue to provide really quality education retreats for both educators and for youth?”
Explore More activity book for kids
If you are out exploring the Adirondack mountains of upstate New York, this is a great activity book for kids and families! The Tri-Lakes Explore More book is 68 pages and encourages kids to get to know their Adirondack surroundings. Made by Jenna Audlin, a Saranac Lake teen. Read about her here.